Film Review: Norman: The Moderate Rise & Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer (USA, 2017) is like a conga dance, blurring the lines between friendships & manipulation

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer is a light comedy film about a human of New York. But he’s not just any human. The eponymous Norman is a wheeler/dealer and the undisputed king of networking. The film is what you’d get if The Ides of March were directed by Woody Allen because it’s a complex, Jewish political story where not all is as it seems.

This movie is the English-language debut from writer and director Joseph Cedar. Richard Gere stars as Norman Oppenheimer and carries this film. Gere puts in a strong performance playing the utterly charming but rather obtuse Norman, a “businessman” who should have “puppeteer” listed on his rather generic-sounding business card because at the end of the day he loves pulling strings.

Oppenheimer seems like such a charming and unassuming character. He is always dressed in the same outfit: a camel-coloured coat, scarf and cap. He also immediately puts people at ease because he always says he knows someone who knows someone that is connected to the individual in question. And whether Norman’s “victim” cottons on to his ruthlessness, ulterior motives or dogged determination is another story.

This tale is split into four separate acts and the most important story arc involves a victim from Israel. Micha Eshel (Lior Ashkenazi) is a member of the Israeli cabinet who is visiting New York. Messer Oppenheimer immediately sniffs an opportunity and splashes out on an exorbitantly-priced pair of shoes for this government official. This investment pays huge dividends a few years on when Eshel is installed as Israel’s prime minister and on a return visit to the U.S. he remembers his “Good friend Norman.”

Along the way Oppenheimer’s other deals involve getting a millionaire donor to contribute a huge sum of money to a local synagogue where the delightful Steve Buscemi is a rabbi. Norman needs this place of worship because he pilfers food from them and he needs to ingratiate himself to the rabbi in order to expedite a conversion that will allow his nephew (Michael Sheen) to marry a non-Jewish girl.

Norman also has some close encounters with another Israeli government employee (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and he meets his match in another fixer (Hank Azaria). There is an undercurrent of suspense underpinning this tale with Oppenheimer treading water to stay afloat or trying to hold up a house of cards that looks like it could fall at any minute. It’s fascinating stuff to watch although Cedar’s use of some montages is a little strange and heavy-handed.

Norman is a long film but it’s one that is worth getting engrossed in because it throws you enough curveballs and surprises to pique your interest. The story is ultimately a clever and nuanced observation on human behaviour where people consistently dance along the line between “friendship” and manipulating or using people. At the end of the day, Norman Oppenheimer is someone you’ll fall in love with whether you want to or not.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer opens in Australian cinemas on May 25.

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